How it Feels to be Colored Me | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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How it Feels to be Colored Me | Main Ideas


Rejection of Racism

In her essay Zora Neale Hurston repeatedly and emphatically denies any negative feelings about being African American. Sometimes she denies negativity with cutting humor, as when she refuses to offer "extenuating circumstances" to explain her racial identity at the beginning of the essay. Sometimes she is simply straightforward: "I do not mind at all." Her emphasis on this rejection of negativity suggests that she thinks people expect it to be there. It may also be her way of reminding herself to take a positive outlook even when the world prompts her otherwise.

Hurston's rejection of racism extends to people of her own race. In her opening sentence she pokes fun at African Americans who claim they are descended from Indian chiefs, suggesting that they should embrace who they really are instead. Later, she mocks "the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal." This passage conveys clear contempt for anyone, including African Americans, who suggest that African blood could make a person inferior. Hurston rejects this racism and insists that African Americans are as good as anyone else.

Denial of Pain

Although Zora Neale Hurston acknowledges painful personal and historical events in her essay, she does so with evident reluctance, and she spends more time and focus on happiness and positivity. For instance, she spends three full paragraphs describing her happy childhood, but she spends only one paragraph on her transformation into "a little colored girl." In that passage Hurston refuses to describe exactly what happened to her. She says only, "I found it out in certain ways." Skipping over the details allows readers to imagine her pain in their own ways. It also subtly denies any attention to the racist person or people who hurt her. In real life, someone said or did something awful, but in the story as Hurston tells it, the racists are not named or described. Hurston, who loves the spotlight, saps their power by keeping the story focused on herself.

Later in the essay Hurston acknowledges slavery with obvious annoyance, saying, "Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me." One possibility here is that Hurston is willfully refusing to feel pain about slavery because she does not want history to have that power over her. She describes life since slavery as a metaphorical race, and she is more focused on running it than on looking back at what came before. Once again, she focuses the attention on herself: "Slavery is the price I paid for civilization ... It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it." Once again, Hurston denies any attention to the people who committed the horrors she dismisses. The wrongdoers of history, the ones who enslaved others, are completely absent from Hurston's story, as if not even worth mentioning.

Embrace of the Self

When Hurston describes herself, she freely presents qualities that some people may consider flaws. For instance, in her description of her childhood, she says she wanted attention so much she "needed bribing to stop" performing. Her description of her adult self also focuses on details that may come across as arrogant or attention seeking: "I ... saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library." (The New York Public Library, located at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan, is guarded by two marble lions named Patience (south side) and Fortitude (north side).) By embracing aspects of herself that others may sometimes criticize, and even using words like snooty, which often carries a negative connotation, Hurston conveys acceptance of herself as she is, flaws and all.

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